The car chase is one of the hallmarks of the action genre. An action movie often doesn’t feel complete unless one character gets behind the wheel of a car and chases another character at high speed. Of course, car chases aren’t always as thrilling as they could be. Either through poor editing or lifeless cinematography or an overreliance on computer-generated effects, car chases can end up looking dull and even boring if they’re not done right.
The bad ones only look bad because we’ve been spoiled by so many great ones, thanks to directors like James Cameron and George Miller who appreciate the craft that goes into creating visceral action scenes. To illustrate the difference, let's take a lot at some of the very best and very worst action movies, when it comes to car chases.
10 Best: Terminator 2: Judgment Day
No-one knows how to make a sequel quite like James Cameron does. With both Aliens and Terminator 2: Judgment Day, he shook up the formula of the original while raising the stakes significantly. In Aliens, Ripley has to contend with not one, but dozens of the deadly xenomorphs she faced in the first one – and their mother.
In T2, the Terminator model from the first one becomes a protector and an even more powerful model becomes the villain. That more powerful model chases John Connor and co. with 18-wheelers and police cars and just his own two feet, delivering some of the most exciting and cinematic car action ever put on film.
9 Worst: Wanted
There are all kinds of action sequences in Wanted – from absurdly unrealistic bullet-bending shootouts to a derailed train careening into a canyon – but one that comes up plenty is car chases. Angelina Jolie races through a parking lot to pick up James McAvoy mid-drift and then straddles the hood of a speeding sports car while wielding a shotgun, but it just doesn't have the oomph it should.
The CGI-heavy camera voodoo and over-reliance on super slow-motion make the car chases in Wanted feel more dizzying than thrilling for some.
8 Best: Bullitt
This Peter Yates-directed action thriller was way ahead of its time. It was released in 1968, but it set many of the hallmarks for the action genre. From William A. Fraker’s vibrant cinematography to Lalo Schifrin’s jazz-inspired musical score, the influence of Bullitt can be felt across the last 50 years of action cinema, but the movie’s coup de grâce is its revolutionary car chase.
Bullitt is the reason why so many action movies even have car chases. Editor Frank P. Keller won an Oscar for cutting Bullitt, and it could well have been the car chase sequence that earned him the award.
7 Worst: Need for Speed
Video game adaptations never seem to strike with critics or moviegoers (nor do adaptations of movies into video games). This could be because a movie sometimes fells like a lesser experience than a game. While cinema offers an extra layer to the experience when adapting a written novel, video games are an immersive form that actually let you be in the story. Watching a movie is a step down from that.
This was certainly the case with Hollywood’s dull attempt to turn the Need for Speed franchise into the next Fast & Furious. Breaking Bad’s immensely talented Aaron Paul does his best with the limited material he’s given, but Need for Speed does little to grip the audience with its overly computer-generated car chases.
6 Best: The French Connection
There’s only one big car chase in The French Connection, but it’s so riveting and spectacular that it defines the whole movie and won’t leave car lovers disappointed. The movie itself, as a whole, is a classic must-see crime thriller.
The French Connection’s vehicular set piece is even more impressive by today’s standards, because modern audiences have been numbed by Hollywood’s overuse of CGI. William Friedkin used entirely practically effects to capture Popeye Doyle’s high-speed pursuit of a perp who escaped on an overhead train, so the scene has a raw intensity that is lost in today’s action movie landscape.
5 Worst: Getaway
With a simplistic premise set up for plenty of exciting car-based action, Getaway could’ve been a rollicking ride, but sadly, in the hands of director Courtney Solomon, the action scenes in Getaway just don't hit the mark. They're jumbled, as though the puzzling shots were thrown in a tumble dryer and then pieced together.
Sadly, Getaway was a resounding failure. Still, it makes it clear that there's more to truly iconic car chase sequences than just improbable, flashy action.
4 Best: Baby Driver
With the blend of jukebox musical and action thriller that is Baby Driver, Edgar Wright didn’t just deliver spectacularly choreographed car chases – he also shot and edited them to the rhythms of some awesome rock ‘n’ roll tunes. The only thing cooler than a quick-witted young getaway driver swerving in and out of traffic to evade the cops after a bank heist is... well, that, but set to Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s “Bellbottoms.”
Ansel Elgort stars as Baby, a hotshot getaway driver with tinnitus who focuses on his driving by listening to his mother’s favorite songs on his iPod, who decides to fight back against the crime boss whose thumb he’s under.
3 Worst: Gone in 60 Seconds (2000)
Producer Jerry Bruckheimer remade this classic of the vehicular carnage subgenre of action cinema without a trace of the heart and soul of the original. The original isn’t a beloved gem because of its complex narrative or character development; it’s a beloved gem because of its riveting action set pieces, utilizing some of the greatest vintage cars on the market.
The film-makers wrecked a ton of cars during the making of the chase scenes, and just for good measure, they wrecked a bunch more. In comparison, the Gone in 60 Seconds remake, starring Nicolas Cage and Angelina Jolie (making this is the second Jolie-starring entry on the list), comes off as flat and uninteresting for some movie fans.
2 Best: Mad Max: Fury Road
George Miller dove back into his Mad Max franchise with a clear vision for what he wanted to accomplish. The rare Hollywood reboot that actually lives up to its predecessors, Fury Road didn’t have a formal screenplay. Instead, Miller and his previsualization team mapped out reams of storyboards in order to tell their story visually.
With the characterization handled in the little details, Miller was free to use action to convey the plot. Mad Max: Fury Road is basically a feature-length car chase, with a post-apocalyptic warlord and his goons pursuing a rogue general who has liberated his wives across the wasteland.
1 Worst: The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift
None of the Fast & Furious movies qualify as bona fide cinematic masterworks, but at the very least, they can be counted on for the dependable charms of a gruff Vin Diesel – and, more recently, Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham. So, the greatest shame of The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift is that it reduces Diesel’s presence to a cameo.
The street races and high-speed pursuits fall flat, despite the film-makers having access to an abundance of gorgeous sports cars and one of the most vibrant cities in the world.